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August 4, 2014

The important role of our schools

Thee are a myriad of worthwhile groups and organizations (both faith-based and civic) vying for your time, money and talents. Before choosing how to invest your talents, you might wish to consider the exponential benefit of the community"s involvement in positive youth development.

Michael A. Corriero, director and gounder of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice, noted the power of education and the need to instill the hope of opportunity before hope is corrupted and destroyed by adverse peer pressure, the seeming allure of an easier path of substance abuse and the resulting criminal propensities.

Arne Duncan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, noted in a recent Dear Colleague letter: "Simply put, no school can be a great school -- and ultimately prepare all students for success -- if it is not first a safe school." He challenged schools and communities "to proactively redesign discipline policies and practices to more effectively foster supportive and safe school climates." He emphasized how overuse of suspensions, expulsions and zero tolerance "can erode trust between students and school staff." He observed how such disciplinary approaches "disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities," causing too many to be deprived of "great teaching, positive peer interactions and adult mentorship offered in class and in school."

The question should not be how are your children or my children, but how are the (our) children.

Racial Harmony seeks first to understand not only the scope of the obstacles, but to appreciate and expand a number of currently existing initiatives that are having a positive effect. The untapped and underutilized resources in the community provide a tremendous opportunity if properly motivated, organized and coordinated.

The four pillars that have the potential to provide the foundation for success are:

* The family (parent/student term);

* Schools (student/school partnership);

* Law enforcement (The positive collaboration of schools, students and law enforcement to an underserved child);

* Community (the mesosystem which supplies a mentor or positive authority figure).

On Monday, Racial Harmony will present: "Schools --The Involvement Imperative/Protecting Our Future."

This program will focus on better understanding the benefits and responsibilities under Pillar 3 -- the positive collaboration of schools, students and law enforcement. Racial Harmony is honored to provide an excellent panel of concerned citizens eminently qualified to help us appreciate the initiatives now in place, the difficulties each confronts on a daily basis, and listen to the concerns, suggestions and community interest in being part of the solution:

* Stephen R. Wigginton, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois

* Jeff Dosier, superintendent, Belleville Township High School District 201

* Heinz Rudolf, St. Clair County judge

* Rick Watson, St. Clair County sheriff

Racial Harmony is well aware of the effect of racism, sexism and classism as elements that need to be included in this discussion, whether real or perceived. While we should never hide behind political correctness or ignore the real-world experiences that continue to allow a disparate educational gap to exist, our focus should be on clarifying perception of the problem, engaging the student, the family and the community in the process and fostering a more comprehensive and positive working collaboration with the justice system. The schools cannot and do not operate in a vacuum. What happens in the community does not stay in the community. It affects the atmosphere in the schools, attitude of students and the type and level of engagement of not only the students, but the teachers and administrators.

Schools are part of the real world and must confront violence, theft, bullying, cyber-bullying, substance abuse, gang affiliation and each and every bias or prejudice which exists in the community. It is the hope of Racial Harmony that this program leads to greater understanding and the opportunity to see the big picture by walking in the shoes of each of the panelists as well as in the shoes of students from diverse racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds.

The community's stewardship of the talent of its greatest and most precious resource, our children, requires not only discernment over the proper use of our resources and talents, but our prayers. During this process we would be wise to remember four words Martin Luther King Jr. held in great reverence: love, forgiveness, empathy and empowerment.

Racial Harmony thanks Lindenwood University, which is making its main auditorium available for this program at 6:30 p.m. Monday. Thanks to each of our panelists for not only taking the time to appear but for being concerned and engaging the community.

Robert E. Wells Jr. is an ambassador of Racial Harmony in Belleville.

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